Two little girls, age seven, whirl around an elementary-school playground together. One of them is me. I am short and round, rosy-cheeked and sensibly dressed in corduroys and supportive sneakers. My hair hangs brown and straight in a classic bowl cut. The style pleases my mother, and I thrive on pleasing my mother.
Let’s name the other little girl Juliet Joan Stevenson. It’s not her real name, but it’s close to it. She goes by Joan, even though we agree that Juliet is a more beautiful and sophisticated name. Joan understands beauty and sophistication. Sleek blond ringlets frame her wide eyes and pouty pink lips. She wears leggings, wide sparkly belts, and jelly shoes in bright colors. She is allowed to wear nail polish to school.
It is recess, and we are playing together outdoors; this is beginning to happen less and less. We have just started second grade, and things—social things—are starting to matter. I am quickly defining myself as a child who likes to read and cannot play basketball or jump rope. I invite friends to my house to play games like “school” and “library,” but I cannot go to sleepovers because I will get scared and need to be driven home late at night by the host’s parents. I am nervous; I wet the bed and have trouble sleeping. Holding myself together for a full day of school is about all I can handle.
Joan fits in better. She reads well enough not to be labeled “remedial,” but not so well that she must be removed from the classroom for what they call “gifted reading.” Joan’s dad, like a lot of my classmates’ fathers, has been laid off from his job at a nearby mill. Her mother is the receptionist at a dentist’s office, and Joan has perfect teeth. Joan is an only child with a water bed and rose-colored silk pajamas.
We live in the same neighborhood. Joan comes to my house early in the morning and my mother takes us to school. At the end of the day, we take the bus to Joan’s, where we eat potato chips and ride our matching pink Huffy Dream Girl bikes until my mother picks me up.
But for this story we begin on the playground, where Joan and I are running in a circuitous route between the foursquare courts and swing sets. We weave in between girls jumping rope and boys waiting for a turn to shoot baskets. We are fleeing from a little boy with spikey brown hair who runs very fast with his fists curled up in tight rock-like balls. His name is Kyle Shank, and he is Special Ed for reading, which means he can’t yet. Kyle brings a worldliness to our classroom because he was born in Massachusetts. The rest of us are from right here in Maine. Many of our parents went to this school, and our aunts and cousins make up the faculty, staff, and fleet of bus drivers. Most of us are related, have known each other since birth, but Kyle is from away.
As he chases us, he yells something over and over. “I want to fuck you, Joan! I want to fuck you, bitch.” His promise follows us around and around the playground. Joan is propelled by a mix of fear and excitement; these new words have made this game of chase seem threatening and mysterious. Kyle’s declaration has shaken me, and I run beside Joan in worried solidarity. I don’t know what Kyle means when he says he wants to fuck the girl who has introduced me to Sega, makeup, and Bonnie Raitt. Not knowing makes it seem dangerous. If I stop running, the game will be unchanged by my absence. Kyle Shank doesn’t want to fuck me; he wants to fuck Joan Stevens. I realize this with both bewildered relief and disappointment.
The game ends when the recess bell rings, and after school, my mother ferries me to the quiet of our home. I work at the dining room table with a pack of crayons and she prepares dinner until I ask her what “fuck” means.
Dinner preparation stalls as my mother considers the question. She defines “fuck” as a synonym for sex, a concrete matter of grammar. She launches into the more difficult task of defining intercourse with diagrams sketched in purple crayon on the back of what used to be my homework. That night I puzzle over the mystery of these new words, which seem more grave than all the words I have learned before.
I explain “fuck” to Joan the next morning before school and my mother pays a visit to my teacher, Mrs. Brown. At noon recess, I am asked to stay inside. Mrs. Brown is young and pretty. She lets us keep a variety of classroom pets, and I am often chosen to take the gerbils home for school vacations. I sit in a chair beside her desk as she pulls out a yellow pad of Post-It notes and creates a list of words in blue ink. I have only seen or heard a few of them before, but I can read them all.
She warns me not to speak any of these words out loud. They are so terrible, she explains, that good girls like me, and good women like her, never say them. They are lined up in a perfect column in her perfect second grade teacher handwriting, each somehow more foreboding than the last: ass, bitch, shit, and fuck.
She asks me to point to the words I heard Kyle use on the playground. I point to the appropriate combinations of letters and file the remaining words away to ask my mother about later. Mrs. Brown circles the swear words in red pen. She opens her top drawer, pulls out the tray that holds her pens and glue sticks, and presses the sticky note to the bottom of the drawer. She replaces the tray and closes the drawer before escorting me outside, where she retrieves Kyle. He is gone from the classroom much of the afternoon, and when he finally returns, my classmates ask him where he has been, even though we all know he has been in the principal’s office. Seven-year-old Kyle Shank, with his terrible penmanship and messy desk, looks right at me and announces that I got him in trouble. He says it with so much tight, twisted anger in his narrow face that somehow I know that what he means is “that fucking bitch got me in trouble.”
I spend each summer for the next six years hoping that Kyle Shank will not be in my class in the fall. Most of the time, my job is to avoid him at recess and in the lunch room. There are other boys, and a few girls, who are irritating or mean, but Kyle is scary, and he doesn’t become any less scary as we get older.
Joan and I reduce our friendship to the hours before school when we wait for the bus together at her house or are driven to school by my mother. I join band and she plays basketball. In the eighth grade, our class takes a trip to New York City and Washington, DC. We drive in big coach buses from Maine, and for many of my classmates, including Joan, it is their first time out of the state.
The most exciting portion of the trip is a medieval-themed dinner theater just outside Washington, DC. The girls in my class have spent weeks planning their outfits, and we buzz back and forth between our adjoining hotel rooms fixing each other’s hair and makeup. Kyle Shank spends the evening in the dark recesses of the top row of the arena with my best friend; he teaches her how to kiss with tongue. He kisses her neck and chest, “all over,” she tells me afterward. He takes her hand and places it on his crotch, where she can feel his penis through his khaki dress pants from JCPenney. I sit in the front row, where actors pretend to joust as their horses defecate. I struggle with a grisly chicken thigh and want very badly to be home.
The following year, Kyle goes to a different high school than Joan and I do. His role in my life is replaced by high-school boys who speculate that I am a lesbian because my hair is still short and my clothing still sensible. My appearance still pleases my mother and that is still important to me. Other boys still want to sleep with Joan, but I no longer run beside her. We both survive high school. Joan goes to a state school a few hours from our town. I put a thousand miles between my education and the mill town I grew up in.
Two days after Christmas in 2003, Kyle Shank dies in prison. He is twenty-two years old and serving a year-long sentence for assault, theft, and violation of probation when he contracts the flu. When the virus develops into pneumonia, he is transferred to a hospital, where he dies shortly after being admitted. I read about in the newspaper while home for Christmas break. It is my senior year. My vocabulary is expansive and my future is bright.
Joan Stevenson marries a good man. They build a house near our hometown and have a son. Joan is an NICU nurse. The world leaves enough of her unscarred that there is room for dying babies. She does things that Kyle Shank was too angry for, things for which I am too scared.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to the yellow Post-It note on the bottom of Mrs. Brown’s drawer. I can see her showing it to the principal, too embarrassed to speak the circled words. I imagine the effort it took for them both to deem Kyle’s behavior on the playground that day a simple crime of vocabulary. It strikes me that if I allow memory to erase the noise, if I return to that day on the playground without words, we appear to be having fun. With the volume down low, we are just children running. We are racing away from our childhoods down any path we can find.